Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Ursula K LeGuin

I woke up this morning to the incredibly sad news that the science fiction writer Ursula K LeGuin has died. I thought I’d like to do a blog post about how important she was for me, but didn’t know if I’d have time. However, a storm has wreaked havoc on central Scotland’s railways, so I’m using the lengthy delay I’m experiencing to pen some thoughts.

I wasn’t much of a sci-fi reader under I started reading LeGuin’s work. Not long after I first met my husband, he made me watch a very good BBC2 documentary about her work. He reads loads of sci-fi and fantasy, or varying quality, and is also a massive fan of LeGuin’s work. This spent some time discussing The Left Hand of Darkness. I was fascinated by the themes it picked up and my husband encouraged me to read it. Not being a regular reader of sci-fi at that point I did find it hard work – the funny names that my brain couldn’t work out how to pronounce to itself; the descriptions of alien worlds. I’ve since realised, if you’re not regular sci-fi reader that this is a barrier you have to overcome (I’ve currently a third of the way through Iain M. Banks’ Excession and am just about understanding it now). Once I’d finished it, I knew it was a good book, but I wasn’t overawed by it.

A little while later, it was during the write-up of my PhD thesis, I then read The Dispossessed. This story of lives in anarcho-syndicalism and rampant capitalism really resonated with me. In my thesis I was grappling with how to write about regeneration policy that was more than just going “oooh, it’s bad and neo-liberal” and also write in an ethnographic way. It was in The Dispossessed that LeGuin’s background in anthropology (her parents were anthropologists) really shone through for me. She deftly used the otherness created by the genre of sci-fi to bring into sharp relief the problems, and benefits, of both the capitalist planet and its revolutionary anarcho-syndicalist moon. This helped me grapple with the fact my policy ethnography had to reveal the difficult ethical and moral decisions all actors in a policy process were making and try and draw out a compromise of “what’s the best thing to do in the situation we find ourselves in” – driving be towards Habermas’ pragmatics that still frame a lot of my thinking in policy studies.

I then delved into The Lathe of Heaven just as I was finishing up my thesis. This was brilliant for me then – this is what my policy-makers were trying to do! The utopianism of both social democratic policy and managerialism was trying to create a perfect world from their dreams without thinking of the consequences. The best bit for me was when the scientist got rid of races to get rid of racism and the world then became incredibly dull. For me, at this time, this really spoke to policies that were trying to normalise all neighbourhoods rather than accepting difference between deprived and affluent neighbourhoods and working within that frame. It also helped me further get to grips with what good ethnography (particularly policy ethnography) is trying to do – to reveal the absurdities in the taken-for-granted, such as the way in which people act within a “partnership” meeting, compared to the differing ways in which partnership was understood by the people round the table, a point I elaborate in this paper.

Over the years I worked my way through virtually all her books, including the dodgy fourth book in the Earthsea trilogy. She is one of the few authors I have re-read. I read both The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed within the last eighteen months. Funnily enough, my views from my previous readings were reversed – I found the dichotomy in The Dispossessed quite clunky, and the exploration of gender and binary divisions in The Left Hand of Darkness (plus the drama of the escape) utterly enthralling. I think this was because I am now much more attuned to issues of gender. Re-reading them also reminded me of my dream from when I first started reading her books – to run a postgraduate module on The Policy Analysis of Ursula K LeGuin.

I also think LeGuin, along with J.G Ballard (read Vermillion Sands), was one of the best short-story writers I’d read. Her wonderful short collection Changing Planes is extremely witty, and whenever I find myself spending a little too much time in an airport departure lounge I think of its central conceit with a wry smile, and a wish that I could change planes!

So, I am very upset that LeGuin has died – as a friend commented, 88 seems very young these days. But I am so glad her writing could be part of my life. Her work opened up the world of sci-fi to me, revealing what the best sci-fi, the best ethnography, and the best policy analysis do – make you look at the world askance.

Friday, 5 January 2018

This blog post is not about Toby Young

Academic twitter in the UK got very angry on New Years Day. The Guardian broke the story, just after midnight, that Toby Young had been appointed to the Board of the new Office for Students, the HE regulator in England. People were very angry indeed, and quite rightly so, and a lot of digital ink has been spilled. My main thought was that the graun had rather landed on a good way of driving traffic to their website on a dull Bank Holiday Monday.

This might seem a bit of a snarky thought – TY’s appointment is a bad decision – but it does also reflect that, outside of academia, I can’t imagine anyone really gives a shit who has been appointed to the Board of the OfS. Or even that the OfS has replaced the regulatory role of HEFCE and the Privy Council.

I landed on this thought after repeated conversations I had over the Christmas break with non-academic family and friends which started with “so when are you back at work?” and occasionally the blunt “so when are the students back?”. In answer to the first, it was “the 3rd January, and semester starts on the 15th"; the answer to the second was the reverse of that. Having been a lecturer seven years now, I’m getting used to patiently answering this question.

In polite conversation I sometimes almost hate being asked what I do – I usually just say I work at the University of Stirling. I think because of the middle-class circles I am in, this then leads onto this conversation:
“What do you do?”
“I’m a Senior Lecturer in Social Policy.”
“What’s social policy?”
“That’s a good question, don’t ask me!”
“What do you teach?”
(precis of syllabus of second year module, while hoping the conversation ends) etc.

Sometimes the conversation will drift onto my research. Then I’m torn between pinning the poor soul in the corner while I run through my elevator pitch for my next project, or just summarising it as “I’m interested in why we have poor neighbourhoods and rich neighbourhoods”. I can easily end up having to summarise how research funding in the UK works.

I can see why academics socialise with other academics, as it shortcuts a lot of this.

My mum was a social worker, and so she used to dread conversations about her work for similar reasons. For a while she worked in Bradford Council’s office in Manningham. If someone asked her where she worked she would just reply “Lumb Lane”. It was then the location of the red light district, so that would shut down this conversation completely.

The variation on this conversation I find most interesting, and tread warily around, is when people who are quite professional clearly have absolutely no idea what being an academic entails. You don’t want to patronise, but then you don’t want to end up intellectualising either.

Particularly over the summer, academic public reaction to the common comment “oh, are you off for the summer then” is rage. I used to be like that. Now I just politely explain that I take annual leave like anyone else and say where I’m planning on going on holiday.

To get to the point. I think there is quite a lot of snobbery in this response that we need to be aware of, and I will get this blog post back to TY, I promise. Even in these days of mass participation in higher education, the majority of people in the UK have absolutely no experience of higher education except for the fact it’s a big building in their city or town. Not many people will actually no any academics, and even if you have had experience of HE as an undergraduate or even postgraduate taught student, the chances are you will have no idea what academics actually do.

So, when you have no idea about something, what do you do – you reach for something you do know about: your education to-date. Which has been at schools. And school teachers do have most of the school holidays as their holidays. It’s not that big a leap of logic to presume that your teachers when you are an adult live fairly similar lives to your teachers when you were a kid. In fact to presume otherwise would be the greater leap of logic.

I told you I’d get this back to TY.

And, I think this is what we’re quite bad at remembering when things like the TY appointment happen. Yes, it is bad, but it’s particularly bad for us as academics. For most people in the UK, it is completely inconsequential. Higher Education is inconsequential for most people in the UK. This is why Michael Gove can get away with dismissing the “experts”. This is partly one of the reasons, I would suggest, that we seem to be losing the battle for our relevance against some pretty ferocious attacks. My concern has always been that focusing on specific issues like tuition fees, or the appointment of TY, we miss the bigger picture of “reducing barriers to entry to new actors in the market”, and reducing the barriers to exit, that are a key part of these reforms.

So, if you’re an academic reading this, next time someone asks you if you’re off for the summer, can I suggest that you smile and politely explain that you’ll be off on leave and recall that the person asking does not know. Can we ensure that what we do is comprehensible to a wider audience so that we don’t have to rely on liberal, middle-class Guardian-readers as our allies? For me, this is what the radical proposition of coproducing our universities should be about. Being universities in new contexts with diverse communities.